Wat Chedi Luang, the big stupa

Wat Chedi Luang, the big stupa

Table of Contents

Chiang Mai Wat Chedi Luang Songkran
Wat Chedi Luang during the Songkran Festival

History of Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang (Thai: วัดเจดีย์หลวง, literal: temple of the big stupa) is a Buddhist temple in the center of Chiang Mai. We visit the temple during our Chiang Mai Temple Tour. Three temples originally made up the temple grounds: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham, and Wat Sukmin. Wat Chedi Luang dates back to the 14th century. King Saen Muang Ma (1385-1401) started the construction of the chedi in 1391 to bury the ashes of his father. He didn’t complete the pagoda during his reign though. It was the Queen who constructed the upper part of the great pagoda, installed its spire, and gave it its finishing touches.

elephant statues on tower
Elephants on the chedi of Wat Chedi Luang

Construction of the Chedi

Not until the mid-15th century, during the reign of King Tilokaraj (1487-1495), did they finish the construction of the chedi. It was then 82 meters high and had a base diameter of 54 meters: the largest building in the Lanna kingdom. In 1468 they installed the statue of the Emerald Buddha in the eastern niche. In 1545 however, the upper 30 meters of the structure collapsed after an earthquake. Not long after that disaster, they moved the statue of the Emerald Buddha to Luang Prabang. In our morning samlor tour we visit the temple. On our after dark samlor tour the temple is beautifully illuminated as you can see on the picture below.

Wat Chedi Luang after dark Chiang Mai Evening Tour by samlor
Wat Chedi Luang after dark samlor
Naga at a ruined chedi with Buddha statue
Buddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang in 2020. The staircase has disappeared.

The City Pillar (Lak Mueang)

Also on the temple grounds is the city pillar (Lak Mueang) of Chiang Mai, which is named Sao Inthakin. It is an old Tradition that a town or a city has a City Pillar. In 1800 King  Kawila moved the City Pillar to the temple. He also planted three trees, to help the City Pillar to protect Chiang Mai. A festival in honour of the City Pillar takes place every year in May and lasts from 6 to 8 days. In a wihan near the entrance to the temple is the Buddha image named Phra Chao Attarot, which was cast in the late 14th century. On the other side of the chedi is another pavilion housing a reclining Buddha statue.

Buddhist temple with tree
The City Pillar building at Wat Chedi Luang

The sober and beautiful old Ubosot

You can easily spend an hour at this temple. Apart from the giant chedi there are quite a few other fascinating buildings as well as an interesting museum. One of our favorite places is the old ubosot, the ordination hall. This is the place where new monks are being ordained and other ceremonies take place. This old Ubosot is located behind the giant chedi. It dates back from 1883 and underwent several renovations, in 1948 and 1997. It is not in use anymore. Probably most viharns and ubosots looked as sober as this building. It is beautiful in its simplicity.

The Buddhist Manuscript Library and Museum

The Buddhist Manuscript Library and Museum is closed on Wednesday. It is a beautiful and interesting museum, especially for people who have more than superficial interest in Theravada Buddhism and in palm leaf manuscripts. The museum gives a lot of information and is very well maintained. On the ground floor interesting, historic pictures are exhibited. On the first floor there is information about palm leaf manuscripts and a collection of beautiful, classic palm leaf containers.

The chedi before restoration

There are many old pictures of the temple. Some of them you can find in this article on the Travel and History website. These images show the chedi in ruined state, overgrown with vegetation. The Austrian-American botanist Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962) visited Chiang Mai in the 1930s. Besides being an geographer, explorer and linguist Rock was also a keen photographer. He made below picture in 1934.

Old temple with ruined chedi
Wat Chedi Luang in 1934. Photo by Joseph Rock.

Dutch photographer Don Oppedijk

Dutch photographer Don Oppedijk visited Chiang Mai twice in the past century. He visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Lamphun and made a trekking into the mountains. You can find his photos on his Flickr page. I have been in touch with Don several times. He kindly allowed us to post his wonderful images of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981 on this website.

Ruined chedi of Buddhist temple
Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Ruined chedi under vegetation
The ruined chedi of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Ruined temple under vegetation
The staircase of Wat Chedi Luang in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.

The reconstruction in the 1990s

In the early 1990s, the Fine Arts Department reconstructed Wat Chedi Luang, which partially financed by UNESCO and the Japanese government. Not everyone was pleased with the result of the reconstruction. Quite a few people don’t like the new look of the chedi. They prefer how it looked before the reconstruction.  For the 600th anniversary of the chedi in 1995, a copy of the Emerald Buddha made from black jade was placed in the reconstructed eastern niche. To prevent people from climbing the structure they took out the steps of the Naga staircase, as you can see on below picture.

Naga at a ruined chedi with Buddha statue
Buddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang in 2020. The staircase has disappeared.

Where is Wat Chedi Luang?

The temple features in these tours